CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — With state budget negotiations likely stalled until the fall, so too is Gov. Maggie Hassan's timeline for announcing whether she'll challenge U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte next year.
And with Hassan the first domino in a line of Democrats who may aspire to higher office, others are left in a holding pattern until she makes her intentions known.
"The logjam that's holding things up from shifting and moving around is Gov. Hassan," said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
With the election 16 months away, there's no rush for Hassan to decide. She is considered far and away the best potential challenger for Ayotte and early polling shows a matchup between the two would be tight.
Most political observers had been expecting a decision from Hassan sometime this summer after state budget negotiations wrapped up. But now that she's vetoed the spending plan, she and her team say crafting a new state budget remains her top priority.
"People from across New Hampshire and the country continue to encourage the Governor to consider all options for continuing her service on behalf of Granite Staters, and she has told them that she is focused on reaching a responsible budget compromise and that she has no timetable for any decisions related to 2016," Marc Goldberg, Hassan's former campaign manager and a senior adviser to her political committee, said in an email.
Many Democrats say they truly believe Hassan hasn't made up her mind. As a relatively popular, second-term governor with statewide name recognition, Smith said Hassan could hold off until late fall or even early next year before deciding. She could still easily mobilize supporters and quickly raise the cash necessary to compete.
The New Hampshire race could be a key to control of the Senate and national Democrats are encouraging Hassan to run.
But Hassan's delay sends ripples throughout her party. As she waits to make up her mind, other potential Democratic candidates for governor and senator are frozen in place.
There are plenty of other names in the mix, including executive councilors Chris Pappas and Colin Van Ostern, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster and former congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter. Businessman Mark Connolly, a former head of the state's Bureau of Securities Regulation, is planning to run for governor if Hassan does not seek re-election.
Ayotte, elected to the Senate in 2010 in her first run for any office, officially launched her re-election bid last week. As one of a few female GOP senators, Ayotte rose quickly to national prominence and is often a leading Republican voice on national security and other issues. She has often been mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate. Ayotte's spokeswoman declined to comment on the 2016 campaign.
"Sen. Ayotte remains focused on her job to best serve the people of New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate," spokeswoman Liz Johnson said.
Meanwhile, the state Republican and Democratic parties are already working to bloody Hassan and Ayotte in anticipation of a matchup.
Republicans claim Hassan vetoed the budget for purely political reasons as a way to shore up her base for a Senate run. Democrats, meanwhile, say Ayotte is pulling the strings behind Republican decisions in the Legislature in hopes of weakening Hassan. Both state parties are trying to gin up bad press for the other side, but neither has produced much evidence to back up their claims.
The UNH Survey Center has a poll in the field on budget issues, with the results expected next week. Smith said the ongoing battle likely isn't making waves beyond Concord and shouldn't hurt Hassan or legislative Republicans much.
Outside money is flowing into the state, too. Republican-aligned Crossroads GPS and Impact America Action ran digital and radio ads calling Hassan a tax-and-spend governor while the Democratic group Senate Majority PAC launched an online ad campaign against Ayotte.
Hassan is raising campaign cash, too. Her political committee has sent fundraising emails based off her veto of gun legislation as well as the budget stalemate. Federal campaign finance laws say money cannot be transferred from state to federal campaign accounts, but if Hassan were to run for Senate that money could be used to buoy fellow New Hampshire Democrats.
Democrats' chances of defeating Ayotte are likely to drop substantially if Hassan takes a pass.
"If Hassan decides she is going to run for governor and not for Senate, whoever the Democrats run for Senate is going to do it under the assumption that they're going to lose," Smith said.